From Spanish Harlem to Hollywood, Rapper Bodega Bamz Muscles Through His Acting Debut

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A report by Marjua Estevez for Billboard.

Inside Billboard’s headquarters, Bodega Bamz fancies a snack box of strawberry Cheerios. He’s emerged a rather slender figure in comparison to his more-familiar stocky frame.

The man born Nathaniel DeLa Rosa, famously called Bodega Bamz in the rap scene, is a far cry from the shamelessly gluttonous, Hennessy-touting MC he used to be. Albeit still a proud griot in his own right and product of the hip-hop generation, Bamz today is a new man attempting to forge his legacy in a new world: Hollywood.

What began with a casual email requesting his presence at an audition of sorts led to Bodega Bamz earning his acting debut in Showtime’s upcoming comedy series SMILF, which follows the life of a single mother trying to make ends meet while simultaneously learning to co-parent with an ex-boyfriend.

His character of Carlos, a recovered addict-turned-entrepreneur, is as fascinating as how the role came to form. “The role was literally tailored after me,” he says, singing praises of Frankie Shaw, the creator, writer, director and star of the show. “Carlos is Nathaniel DeLa Rosa, not Bodega Bamz.”

Born to Dominican and Puerto Rican parents, Bamz is until further notice trading his love of rhymes for his first passion, the art of theater. While he plans to release new music in between gigs, with a new album currently in the works, Bamz is more than ready for the big time.

Billboard sat down with Bodega Bamz and delved into his new role, discussing why losing the weight also meant shedding the old Nathaniel. He also chimed in on Hurricane Maria, which wreaked havoc on his native island of Puerto Rico and other Caribbean nations.

Billboard: Why did you lose the weight, and how?

Bodega Bamz: I stopped drinking. I’ve been sober since February of this year. I did drink some Merlot at the SMILF premiere, but only because I was so nervous [Laughs]. I needed to calm those nerves. But I haven’t drunk any hard liquor or anything like that since, and that’s how the weight loss started. I literally lost like 20 pounds just by stopping the drinking. So when I lost all that weight, I followed up with eating better. Then after reworking my diet, I thought, ‘Ok, let me start working out.’ Now I work out twice a day.

What does your diet consist of?

I tried the vegan shit, and it’s cool, but it’s not for me. It gets boring after a while. But now I treat meat like a luxury. I don’t eat pork at all, but if I’m going to eat meat, I’m going to treat it like a luxury. We grew up in a household where we ate steak or pork chops or some other red meat two or three times a week. We have to learn to treat that like a luxury, so I eat meat maybe once a week. Fish is good, too. I eat fish all the time.

Do you plan on expanding on this new lifestyle?

Yes, actually. I’m going to develop a diet plan and a Tanboys workout program. I’m going to get a protein shake and all of that. My brother OHLA told me that would be a great idea.

A necessary one, too. Especially coming from someone like you who could offer this kind of information to people who look, talk and walk like you and not necessarily have access to that kind of science.

Yeah, because a lot of people have wanted to know, they’ve been asking me how I lost all this weight. So we’re going to do our own workout plan and our own protein shake.

That’s awesome, congratulations. Let’s talk about your new role on Showtime’s SMILF. From what I understand, the role was specifically created for you, which is pretty brilliant considering Hollywood hardly ever creates roles for Latinos…

Shout out to Frankie Shaw who is the creator, writer, director and star of the show — unbelievable talent. She’s super raw, super fresh. At the tail end of April, my brother OHLA got an email from Showtime NBC requesting that I audition for this role, originally the role who plays opposite of Frankie, her baby’s father. I just couldn’t believe we were getting emails from Showtime. They wanted me to audition in L.A., but couldn’t, so we reschedule and I auditioned in New York.

I studied the script and I went over to the ABC studios here in New York. I auditioned, did my thing and left the building not really thinking anything of it. I thought, ‘Whatever happens, happens.’ About two hours later, I got the call saying they wanted to fly me out to L.A.

We set it up and flew out to L.A. Then I auditioned again, this time for the creators and the producers of the show, and everybody at Showtime. I did my thing; I wooed them, made everybody laugh, and made them feel good. But funny enough, the network passed on me. I was auditioning for Rafi’s role, the baby’s father, and they passed on me. So I was kind of bummed out, you know, because I didn’t go looking for this. At the same time, I felt like it wasn’t over, like something had to give. Either way, I sent Frankie Shaw a message giving her thanks for the opportunity, because I was grateful just for the opportunity to audition. And sure enough, a few weeks after they passed on me, the casting director of the show called us and said that Frankie loved me so much, she wants to create a whole new character for me. Of course I accepted. My manager, Jerry and I accepted. We were mad excited.

How the universe works…

I kept my head high in the midst of all that, for real, because that role wasn’t for me. It was for somebody else. So that’s how Carlos was born.

Your character, Carlos — what should we know about him?

He’s Rafi’s best friend on the show. Rafi is the baby’s father, who co-parents with Bridget (Frankie Shaw). Rafi and Carlos are best friends. We are rehabilitated. We used to be drug addicts, and now we’re trying to think about our next move, our game plan. Carlos is a hustler’s hustler, looking to build himself as an entrepreneur. He’s on the come-up.

What does Bodega Bamz have in common with Carlos?

He’s handsome [Laughs]. Honestly, we’re talking about me. Carlos is Nathaniel DeLa Rosa, not Bodega Bamz. The role was literally tailored after me. She saw a quality in me that she wanted to build on. He’s funny, he’s charismatic, and he’s social. He’s also a bit of a livewire, always hyper.

How has being a real-life rapper informed your preparation for your acting debut?

The beauty behind the rap shit, is the confidence. I built my confidence through music, through the many ups and downs of music; I built my confidence just being on tour performing in front of people. So when those lights come on, in Hollywood, it’s almost like second nature to me. I don’t think too much of it, I block everything out, I’ve already been trained to do so. The other thing is, because I’m a professional rapper, I’ve also already been trained to memorize my lines. And the cool thing about it is Frankie lets us improvise a lot, so I get to flex, I get to add my flair. I have the freedom to just be me, which means a lot to me because I’m adamant about being authentic and doing it for the culture. In my music, in my interviews, you hear me say it all the time.

What doors do you hope this opens?

I want to be in movies; I want to be a writer and a director.

Did you always want to be in movies?

Hell yeah, since I was a kid.

Well, your music videos are really cinematic.

And that was the only way for me to get that out there, my love of acting and storylines, was through my music videos. But I’ve always wanted to act. Acting and movies — that was my first passion. But it was a dream I didn’t know how to pursue. I knew how to pursue music, but acting was always my first passion. A lot of my inspiration — outside my life — comes from movies. I don’t just watch movies to watch them, I also study them.

I remember being in plays and drama classes, at school and in church. I remember even trying out for Reading Rainbow. Remember that show? My mom took me to Reading Rainbow, but they ain’t call me back [Laughs]. They’re going to regret it [Laughs].

How did you prepare for your role, if at all?

I prayed. A lot. I prayed because up until I was actually on set, I kept thinking, ‘What if this isn’t real?’ So I prayed to God. Because truth be told, I’m only here because of him. This is designed by God. A door I’ve always wanted to open happened because of a random email. I give all thanks to God.

Are you happy?

Hell yeah! Don’t I look happy?

I ask because your music is a reflection of your life. How has all this physical change affected you mentally, musically?

Mentally? Growth. Real growth. Even the music I have coming out, it’s just a different Bamz. I knew that physically changing wasn’t going to be enough. I have to follow up with changes in other areas of my life, how I might look at things or react to them. From my music to the way I talk to the way I present myself. Everything has to change. The biggest change since all of this has been just the way I think, the way I move.

I’m not just thinking about Bodega Bamz, I’m thinking about other people, other artists. I’m thinking about building my brand, adding on, expanding it to make it bigger. It’s just mental growth overall. I went through a lot of shit to get to where I’m at.

2016 was a crazy, hard year. I speak to a lot of people and they’ve said the same thing. I don’t know why, but it was a really trying year for me. It was fucking crazy. That was literally the worst year of my life — financially, physically, mentally and even spiritually. I was just fucked up. But I still had to push through that. It was so bad that I kept speaking it into existence that 2017 was going to be a great year. I just kept thinking that someone can’t go through this much shit and not see the light at the end of the tunnel. I knew change was coming, I just didn’t know how or from where.

And music? Where are you at with music, now that you’re acting?

I’m treating music like a luxury. I really want to focus on the acting. I’m treating music like this is for my fans. I’m not caring too much anymore about the success or money coming from music. I do music for my fans. Music is what I’ll work on when I’m not acting.

I stopped loving music at one point, because it was becoming so stressful. I stopped loving it because it became a full-time job. I didn’t come in like that; I came in because I loved it. That was one of the things I didn’t want to do, I didn’t want to turn rap into a job, because I feel like every job you eventually get tired of it. The fact that I needed music to pay bills and to provide… it didn’t become fun anymore. Not for me. I need to get back to the essence of why I began to do music in the first place, which is because I love it and I don’t give a fuck if I make a dollar or a hundred dollars. I don’t care about a million views. That’s what I’m getting back to now, and the new music will be a reflection of that.

I’m going to drop an album next year. Here and there, in between, I’ll drop new music, new songs. I released something on a whim just [the other day], for Puerto Rico.

As someone of Puerto Rican descent, how have you responded to what’s going on in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean?

I’m half Puerto Rican, and I still have family out there. My grandfather is out there, and we haven’t heard from him yet.

Still?

Yes, and he’s my only living grandfather, on my mom’s side. It’s personally affected me in a big way. It’s not something you think will happen, or happen to you. It’s a devastation to say the least. I had to show my support, obviously. TIDAL did a fundraiser and we of course came through, packed mad boxes, shipped things out, and helped people. Everyone went to work, so shout out to TIDAL and Fat Joe, too, who put it all together. And I also have a benefit show [I did] at Club 40/40. It’s important for me to be proactive about this, because I’ve seen a lot of people stand by and not do anything.

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